It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.
Here’s an important reminder from George MacDonald:
There is no massing of men with God. When he speaks of gathered men, it is as a spiritual body, not a mass.
I have Orthodox friends who attack Kierkegaard’s individualism. Perhaps there is something to attack there, perhaps not, but all too often their attack is that Kierkegaard’s overemphasis on the individual obscures our ties to one another and makes nonsense of Christian ecclesiology. But I say, briefly, bearing MacDonald in mind, that Kierkegaard is not making nonsense of ecclesiology, but rather preparing the way for it, by making sure that we understand that there is no massing of men with God–and that the church is not a mass, but a spiritual body: a qualitatively different thing.
The deep similarities between MacDonald and Kierkegaard deserve study.
There’s much to profit from in Moran’s recent interview at 3am magazine. The section on Experimental Philosophy is a tour de force.
As to ‘experimental philosophy, I can’t claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitioners are beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their “intuitions” about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can’t really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, “‘Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?”, for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can’t know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It’s not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophy evolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical background to the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.
Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide “comments” on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional in such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It’s worth trying anyway.
What makes reading Kierkegaard so difficult? Here’s one thing: his words are often pseudonyms of themselves.
Hamann and the Traditon (Northwestern University Press) is just out. My essay: “Metaschematizing Socrates: Hamann, Kierkegaard and Kant on the Value of the Enlightenment” is included. The editor, Lisa Marie Anderson, did a nice job with the volume. Lots of good stuff on Hamann—including especially an essay by my friend, John Betz, who is the Hamann guy (not that that’s all he is, by any means).
(I just noticed an annoying mistake in my paper, no doubt due to my faulty proofreading. The final footnote should compare Socrates to St. John the Baptist, not to Saint Paul, as it does. )
I find what Ed has written very helpful, as I said. One reason for that is because he clearly recognizes the difficulty of self-knowledge—that is, the conceptual difficulty about it (not the difficulty of acquiring it, although it is difficult to acquire). Self-knowledge is not simply a species of information, information about myself. Sure, there is lots of information about me, and lots of it I know (and some of it is hard to know, I need, e.g., doctors or x-rays to tell me about it), but none of that is what Socrates or Kierkegaard or Emerson calls on me to care about. –In fact, Kierkegaard and Emerson signal this by ringing changes on the Delphic Commandment—“Choose yourself!” (Kierkegaard) and “Obey yourself!” (Emerson), distancing themselves deliberately from ‘know’ (without disavowing it).
As I see it, the difficulty (the conceptual difficulty) of self-knowledge reveals itself best when it is seen in the context of Perfectionism. Now, although I am not quite a Moral Perfectionist of the Cavellian (Emersonian) sort, I am a Perfectionist. (I suppose I could be called a Christian Perfectionist—of a Gregory-of-Nyssa sort. Explaining that is a task for another day.) And my Perfectionism can help itself to the “unattained but attainable self” structure that Cavell’s has. Crucial to that structure is a form of self-involvement (in a non-pejorative sense) that can be described as knowing, as choosing and as obeying. It can be described as discovery and as creativity.
Consider Kierkegaard’s “One must become a Christian.” I take this as a grammatical remark. But this means that no particular place a person finds himself on his Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be the final stop. Even if the Pilgrim is, in one sense, a Christian, it will also be true that there is another sense in which he is not a Christian. That is, for anyone who recognizes the grammatical remark, and lives in the light of that recognition, the term ‘Christian’ subdivides into two senses, one that applies to him now, and which seems to him now at best unsatisfying (conventional, rote, sclerotized, immanent), and another that does not (yet) apply to him now, but which seems to him to call him forward (and is unconventional, spontaneous, supple, transcendent). That person reaches out, as it were, toward the second sense by standing on the very edge of the first. The transcendent Christian self that the person is reaching out to is his own, himself, but is that transcendent self as yet is not fully determinate. Who he will be when he becomes his transcendent Christian self is not (yet) fixed, not fully fixed. And yet he will be himself. He will be transmuted … into himself. When he becomes his transcendent Christian self, he will come to know himself, but he will also choose himself, and he will obey himself. He will discover himself and create himself. Which of these descriptions we use will be a matter of how we center ourselves on the structure of his immanent Christian self and his transcendent Christian self. If we center ourselves on the entire structure, then knowing is a natural enough description, since he comes to know a self he has not previously known, or to know about himself something he had not previously known. If we center ourselves on his immanent self, then choosing is a natural enough description, since he determines or fixes, at least partially, that transcendent self. Or, if we center ourselves on his transcendent self, then obeying is a natural enough description, since he has called himself (immanent) to himself (transcendent). So far as I can tell, none of these centerings is compulsory, all are available, and so each of the descriptions they generate is available—and natural enough. But even so, each of the descriptions is still in need delicate handling, since each is liable to be misunderstood.
Ed’s fascinating talk of ‘knowing-how’ relates to what I have in mind. Ed understandably wants to retain the word knowledge (as I do too). But since the knowledge we are after is not simply a species of information, a good thought is to treat the knowledge as know-how (where what is known is clearly enough not information). Then we can think of our Christian as knowing how to become a Christian, and as utilizing his know-how by so doing.
Ed complicates his know-how story by bringing in ideas of loyalty, pledging and promising. And here what he says sounds particularly Perfectionist. When he mentions that the pledging he has in mind is “pledging-in-the-relative-dark”, I understand that as quite close to my idea that the transcendent self is not understood, not fully understood.
(I should add that although most of what I said on this topic in the previous post (and comments) painted self-knowledge as “confessional” or “reflective” (to use Ed’s terms) I too believe there is a commissive side to all of this, and that is part of the reason I have chosen to foreground my Perfectionist framework as I have. Ed’s post helped me to see how better to balance what I wanted to say.)
Knowing, choosing and obeying are each natural enough descriptions, but each is liable to misunderstanding. That all of the descriptions are natural enough reveals that each has its liability, since each normally ‘negates’ the other. To seize one and to reject the others is not a good idea; the phenomenon to be saved is responsive to each, and not just serially but somehow all at once. Socrates calls us to examine ourselves, so as to live worthily. Kierkegaard calls us to choose ourselves, so that we are responsible for ourselves. Emerson calls us out in front of ourselves, so that we can become our best.
 Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.
Kierkegaard understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing without authority. I’ve lately been mulling over whether it means anything, and if means anything whether it means anything sufficiently interesting, to say that Wittgenstein understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing PI without authority. The answer of course hinges on what it is to write without authority. For Kierkegaard we might say that writing without authority is, first and foremost, to abjure the role of preacher. But that is not all that it is for him: he clearly means not only to reject one form of relationship to his reader, but a panoply of forms–any form that would make it the case that the reader’s attention finds it easier, more natural, to perch on Kierkegaard than on the reader himself, any form that deflects self-attention. So Kierkegaard is always and forever side-stepping, ducking out, disappearing. He wants his reader to read as if the reader is reading what the reader has written. Reading as self-confrontation.
But how is that to work? Is the experience of such reading supposed to be like the experience of finding something you’ve written previously but forgotten, so that now its content seems news, as does the fact that you are its author? That seems too distanced a relationship to what is written. Is the experience supposed to be like the experience of re-writing something that you have written, editing, poking, patting and scraping? That seems a not-distanced-enough relationship to what is written. (Partly because there is, in an important sense, nothing written yet. You are still writing. Everything remains in the flux of composition.) So what is the experience supposed to be like?
Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tete-a-tete.
And Kierkegaard prefaces For Self-Examination with this:
My dear reader! Read, if possible, aloud! If you do this, allow me to thank you. If you not only do it yourself, if you induce others to do it also, allow me to thank them severally, and you again and again! By reading aloud you will most powerfully receive the impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who am without authority, or others, the consideration of whom would be a distraction.
I reckon that what Kierkegaard wants from his reader is for the reader to experience the reading as private conversation with himself, as saying things to himself tete-a-tete. Doing so fastens the reader’s attention on himself, makes any examination the reading requires self-examination. We read Kierkegaard aright when we read in forgetfulness of him–and only read in remembrance of ourselves. I believe that this is something Wittgenstein aspires to as well. That is, I take his remark about conversations with himself as not purely descriptive but as also prescriptive, say as a registration of a realized writerly intention, realized in PI.
In this way, Wittgenstein aims to write without authority. And I think Wittgenstein signposts this aim: PI’s self-effacing (as I read it) epigraph leaves it to the reader what sort of advance, if any, and if any, how much, PI represents. His desire not to spare others the trouble of thinking and his hope that he would stimulate thinking seem not to target thinking about him (Wittgenstein) but rather thinking by the reader and for the reader and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to philosophical problems. (As Kierkegaard targets thinking by, for and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to existential problems.)
Here is what I find myself moved to say: PI exists as being-for-another. Wittgenstein writes it as a gift to his readers. It is a work of testimony, of confession, and Wittgenstein wrote it for those who are troubled as he is troubled. It is a gage of his friendship, even his love, for them, for his readers. But for it fully to exist as such, the reader must fully acknowledge it, fully acknowledge it as such. To fully acknowledge it is to answer its call to self-awakeness. Wittgenstein wrote a book to be acknowledged, not, if I may put it this way, a book to be known. (I judge this one of the deep similarities between Wittgenstein and Emerson and Thoreau. What they write puts the reader in the space of acknowledgement, and their reader answers the call of the writing, or not. Sometimes gifts are refused. And sometimes what looks like acceptance is still a form of refusal.)
Wittgenstein toyed seriously with the idea of prefacing his work with Bach’s epigraph to the Little Organ Book:
To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.
He hesitated because he thought that in the darkness of our time such a remark would be misunderstood. And so it probably would. But why is that? What has gone wrong in a time when giving and receiving have soured, a time in which we have become so stuffy even while so indigent, a time so graceless as ours? Job endured the Lord taking back what He had given. We will never have to endure that. But only because we have made ourselves unreceptive, and so have never been given anything. Job got everything back, double; we go on and on with nothing.
I’ve been talking about our relationship to philosophical problems, and I want to say more about that idea. The idea is made more clear by Cavell’s notion of a generic object–and in its turn makes Cavell’s notion clearer. (I will not now say more about the use to which the notion (and its companion notion, specific object) is put by Cavell. To see that use, look at pages 52ff. of The Claim of Reason.)
Consider Cavell’s crucial comment:
I will not by such titles be meaning to suggest that there are two kinds of objects in the world [generic and specific], but rather to summarize the spirit in which an object is under discussion, the kind of problem that has arisen about it, the problem in which it presents itself as the focus of investigation.”
Here (briefly) is what I take to be crucial: whether the object under discussion is to be ‘classified’ as generic is a matter not settled by the object itself (by its marks or features), but rather by the way in which we are related to the object–but that means by the way in which we are related to the problem of which the object is the focus. To ‘classify’ the object as generic is really to classify the spirit of our discussion, our relationship to the problem. In the Kierkegaardian terminology I habitually use here, to ‘classify’ an object as a generic object is to highlight the how of our relationship to it, not the what of the object. (The distinction between generic and specific objects is not metaphysical but metaphilosophical.)
Cavell’s phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of The Claim of Reason, are extensions of Wittgenstein’s own (less protracted) phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of Philosophical Investigations. And the phenomenologies are devoted to revealing our relationship to philosophical problems.
Kierkegaard’s Judge William distinguishes two histories, external (outer) and internal (inner). The two histories have different structures. In the first, the person whose life is historized is understood as a stuggler who does not have what he wants or desires to have, but who eventually acquires it. In the second, the person whose life is historized is understood as a stuggler who has what he wants or desires, but who cannot take possession of it, because of a series of obstacles. The first is a “Someday…” history. The second an “Already but not yet…” history. The nature of external history allows for shortening, for omission. Not every moment of the time that passes from lack to acquisition matters; shortening is allowed, even to be encouraged. But the nature of internal history makes each moment matter; shortening would lose the history itself, lose what it is, in a sense, a history of.
In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein characterizes what he calls “the aspects of things that are most important for us”, “the real foundations of our inquiry”–what I want to call the ordinary or everyday–as “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”. How can simplicity and familiarity camouflage anything? How can simplicity and familiarity hide anything, much less what is most important, the real foundations of inquiry, even–what is “most striking and powerful”?
The answer involves Judge William’s distinction. According to the Judge, anything that has an internal history is, in an important sense, unrepresentable. But this also renders anything that has an internal history easy to miss–there are no fanfare moments, no peak instants, in the internal history that would allow what it is a history of suddenly to become conspicuous, to step into view. No, anything with an internal history is, as such, inconspicuous at each moment.
I take it that the ordinary or the everyday has an internal history. It is not representable. Wittgenstein understands the ordinary, the everyday, to be the real foundations of our inquiry, and so rests his philosophizing on something that cannot be singled out, moved into prominence, made striking. –Or at least it cannot in any straightforward way. As Wittgenstein puts it, “The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.” We might gloss this as saying that the ordinary, the everyday, comes into view only once we have realized that they do not come into view. Which means that they do not come into view at all as do those things with external histories.
Here’s a kind of Kierkegaardian parallel. Take humility. The genuinely humble person, as C. S. Lewis once pointed out, doesn’t talk of himself or of humility, but is instead wholly interested in others . As far as humility goes, the genuinely humble person will not strike us as humble. But that fact about a person can strike us, and, in so doing, reveal the person as genuinely humble. What it will reveal is not some one moment, however, in which the person’s humility manifests itself, but rather it will reveal to us the shape of the person’s whole life, of all of his moments. His life is his taking possession of humility, overcoming the obstacles of empty self-obsession that prevent possession.
The work of Philosophical Investigations is taking possession of the ordinary, the everyday, overcoming the obstacles of philosophy that prevent possession.
(H/T to Michael Fried and Stanley Cavell)